The Treatment: “The Lost City of Z”

KCRW’s The Treatment hosted by Elvis Mitchell, talks with James Gray, the director of “The Lost City of Z” a biographical adventure film that tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who searches for a lost city in the jungles of Brazil. Most of the talk deals with Gray dealing with the subject matter of “The Lost City of Z”, a book by David Grann, specifically with Fawcett’s personality.

“He describes Fawcett in a wonderful way, enigmatic, not able to navigate, as he puts it, the messy maze of race as he was both progressive but also deeply prejudiced. And I found those contradictions very interesting because it gets to the core of what we might call a person’s identity and their sense of self”

He goes on to say that this kind of conflict is what makes for good movie-watching; and he is right. The question then is, given these circumstances, specifically with the main character being both a “progressive” and a “prejudiced bigot”, how will the film perform in the box office?

First and foremost, The Lost City of Z is an adventure film, a genre that almost invariably does well provided that the acting and story are on par, and the visual effect,s when applicable, are decent; so it should not have a problem with most people. However, there are always going to be certain individuals who turn immediately (and often times unnecessarily) to politics with films of this nature, especially when the main character is a white Englishmen who is a prejudiced in Brazil. Some appropriate context of course, is required, for the people who will be potentially rise eyebrows at this, will not bother to read the book or even listen to James Gray’s intentions. If it sounds like a cynical statement, it is, and for good reason- because it happens all the time.

James Gray goes on, here are some of the highlights of his point.

“A lot of things go into making us who we are as a culture…ours would be the idea that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and all that…so if you are expressing the idea that is essentially the opposite of that, that the ability to change who you are and your destiny is very limited, it’s a terrifying idea…It is a very European idea.”

In a way, this is about perspective, for in all honesty, people outside of the United States do not care, at least as much, about such issues, and welcome the idea of predetermined destiny as a concept they are willing to accept, not because it is a form of indentured servitude, as some would believe, but because their ideas about the world and the way it works are different from America.

The Lost City of Z premieres on Friday, April 14th. The full podcast can be found at KCRW.com

The WGA Negotiations: the Art of Making the Deal

Deadline reports on the current WGA negotiations with the AMPTP, specifically the initial concerns which led to a strike authorization proposal. In an interview with one of the WGA negotiators, Chris Keyser, he explains how the negotiations are generally supposed to work and where things ultimately went wrong:

“The truth is that what needs to happen here is that we each get close to what our bottom lines are – what things we need to make this deal. And in doing that, we take things off the table, back and forth. The first week or so of the negotiations was a good conversation where we identified – and I say we, that means David Young, who’s our chief negotiator, and Carol Lombardini, who’s the companies’ chief negotiator – we identified, through signaling, which things matter to us in the long run – what we’re gonna need to make a deal. And then the sides begin to take things off the table. That’s a necessary part of the process.”

This back and forth negotiating, when due correctly, produces results that are mutually beneficial; which is why is it called negotiating. Words such as “winning” and “losing” do not apply in this scenario, for if one side loses, than both sides loose, if one side wins, both sides win. At least that’s the ideal. But because nothing is ideal, and negotiations with unions always have a way of favoring the bigger player in the onset, problems arise. In this case, the problems came about in terms of what the AMPTP took off the table and what they added on:

“Instead, they made a tactical move, which they’re allowed to do, in which they put stuff back on the table. They put stuff back on the table which they had taken off before. They added a rollback of health care, at the same time as not putting a single penny on the table for writers’ economic demands.”

This is not to say that AMPTP are the bad guys in this situation, for such distinctions are grossly unfair and generalized, especially in the world of business, where such emotion rarely exists in meaningful form. In response to these demands, the WGA has issued a strike authorization form, which no one wants. It is still hopeful that a reasonable deal can be made, but that will require some give and take for both sides in order to benefit. Neither party can afford to be greedy or modest; a healthy middle ground must be found in order for the negotiation to have any affect. This is common sense; something that both parties recognize, but somehow, despite knowing this, are unable to agree on the right path to take.

 

Screenwriting and Psychology

On March 28th, last Tuesday, John August and Craig Mazin of Scriptnotes dug through the archives and granted us with one of their most requested podcast episodes: Psychotherapy with Dennis Palumbo. The episode discusses many issues that screenwriters often have- writer’s block, procrastination, dealing with partnerships- in a way that is both personal and telling in regards to what it takes to become from the mental perspective.

Palumbo: “What I find very quickly in working with a patient who is struggling with writer’s block is that the issues are bound up in their personal lives”

“I think writer’s block is very similar to the development steps we go through as people…I think when you’re blocked, you’re about to make a growth spurt in your work.”

This kind of thinking, which is discussed in the first fifteen minutes of the podcast, is important to understand because it looks at the actual process of screenwriting from the standpoint not of a writer, but as a person who coincidentally writes. John, Craig, and Palumbo go on to define the difference between writer’s block and procrastination, signifying writer’s block as related to a full on stop of work brought on by a generalizing fear of failure,  rejection, and the thought of being completely unable to write. Procrastination on the other hand, is related to a specific project, in which the writer is stuck but is able to move on and approach the problem differently, rather than complete paralysis from the craft altogether.

Understanding the human mind is just as important as understanding how to write a screenplay for a scriptwriter, for if writers are unable to take care of themselves than nothing will ever get done, no ideas will ever emerge and everything in film and television will remain the same. The full discussion can be viewed at the Scriptnotes podcast website, it is highly recommended for everyone, regardless of profession.

 

WGA Negotiations: The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers

On Friday, March 31st, the Hollywood Reporter issued an update on the current status of the WGA, the Writers Guild of America; specifically, it’s contract negotiations. The talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has apparently been a heated one, as many of the proposals of WGA were denied:

“Earlier, the WGA West, in a letter to Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers head Carol Lombardini, proposed just a week of negotiations, April 10-14, although the parties appear to be some distance apart in their positions on such issues as relief for middle-class writers, shoring up the health plan, solidifying the pension plan’s foundation and other matters”

The talks will resume next week on April 10th, given that the current contract expires May 1st, it is an issue that needs to be resolved quickly; which given the circumstances, is a likely occurrence, especially if both parties want to avoid another strike, like the one in 2007.

What does this ultimately mean for unions? Well, it means that they continuing to be used and used somewhat effectively. However, it does beg the question: is all of this trouble really worth it? It depends on your stance of the relevancy of unions and the general effectiveness of Hollywood. As for myself, I like to remain cautiously optimistic. Hopefully, in the coming days, we will know the effects of the negotiations and what it means for the future and whether or not screenwriting will continue to be a profitable enterprise worthy of people’s time.

The Heir to the Disney Kingdom

The Hollywood Reporter this week details the account of Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and his retirement announcement in two years time; bringing up once again the question of succession for one of the Big Six studios. Unlike the Paramount situation, Disney is a thriving company with several franchises, and thus, is able to survive a transition of power, given the right person takes the job. THR provides the setup:

“ronically, the CEO is trapped in the same vise as his predecessor, Michael Eisner, who named Michael Ovitz his No. 2 in 1995, only to fire him a little more than a year later, with a subsequent settlement of more than $140 million”

On potential candidates:

“But by Wall Street consensus, no internal candidate has emerged as a clear heir apparent since Disney jettisoned Iger’s first pick, Tom Staggs, in 2015. While Ben Sherwood, who serves as co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television, oversees a key profit center, it’s unclear whether Iger favors him. Bob Chapek, who chairs Disney’s parks and resorts, has broad experience and also appears to have Iger’s trust; James Pitaro, the head of consumer products and interactive media, has digital experience, having served as head of Yahoo Media; and CFO Christine McCarthy has been working closely with Iger but lacks operational experience”

On a personal level, Iger needs to pick someone he trusts and understands the needs of the company; which on some level is all of them; from this then Bob Chapek and Christine McCarthy seem to be the best bets for CEO, Chapek because of his park experience and Iger’s trust; and McCarthy because of her close work with Iger. Regardless, the success of a company is not based on the strengths and weaknesses of one individual; it is a collaborative effort one that requires, in the case of Disney, the support of its Board of Directors and the various department heads. It is unlikely that Disney will falter during the transition process, given the company’s history with corporate synergy and their business model, but what happens after 2019 will remain somewhat ambiguous; but it is perhaps an ambiguity that is worth it, for it presents opportunity and new potential directions, including exploring some old avenues worth a second pass.

 

The World’s Most Expensive Episodic TV Show: The Franchise

The Business this week hosted James Mangold, the director and co-screenwriter of Logan, released earlier this month. He discusses one of the many problems that filmmakers face when dealing with studios, specifically, when a filmmaker is called upon to produce a franchise film: a loss of control.

The power of the filmmaker in a studio environment in regards to the franchise is almost nonexistent; and it goes all the way back to the structure of the franchise themselves. This is especially true with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even more so with properties like X-Men, who are not technically under the umbrella of the MCU, being owned by Fox instead of Disney. Mangold makes the point:

“And I don’t think anybody with a human brain and ears and eyes is not starting to think that more is not more. And that adding more heroes, more characters, more effects, more sound…The fact is that the unspoken feeling is that this is a very weird trajectory we’re on. Less is coming back and the movies aren’t as good”

Of course Mangold is generalizing, he says as much. However this generalization makes a point that speaks to franchise structure.

“This is endemic. I think if you’re just going to use Marvel’s grosses and somehow use their movies to make them free of this kind of criticism that’s not fair….Outside of comic books, I’m talking about tent-pole movies in general, they’re not movies generally, they’re bloated exercises in two hour trailers for another movie they’re going to sell you in two years.”

There is of course a bright side to this, for Mangold does not deny that there are some good movies that emerge from the woodwork, referencing Guardians of the Galaxy  (2014) and Iron Man (2008) as being notable exceptions to the rule. The problem lies in what successful films such as these ultimately produce-repetition.

Mangold and host Kim Masters discuss a bit about the specifics of Logan, involving the desire to include a Marvel comic in the film, something that was ultimately denied by the studio resulting in the production of a fake comic book, and then proceeds to get to the treatment of studios when it comes to creative directors.

“The reality is that all you have to do is experience…what it feels like when you don’t have control of your movie”

This brings up an interesting point and speaks to the current studio system, but at the same time also speaks to Mangold and others like him, showcasing, almost entirely in subtext, the narcissism of filmmakers and creative artists. This narcissism is not entirely their fault nor it is necessary a bad thing (see the work of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, 2002) as long as it has a direction. In the case of franchises that direction often leads to “soullessness” and repetition. If directors and others in the industry are allowed to be creative in the confines of mainstream Hollywood, the repetition will cease and the quality of franchises will ultimately improve. This will require, in the most extreme cases, a new brand of Hollywood, one that is based on mutual trust and respect between all parties. That day is unfortunately far off, but hopefully, as long as there are creators, there will be films worth seeing, some of them part of a franchise.

The Netflix Ratings System

IndieWire posted an article early today detailing the upcoming changes to Netflix, specifically the rating system, that are set to appear sometime in April. While by no means a perfect analysis, neglecting for the most part the business side of the issue (i.e. why Netflix thought it would be a good idea in the first place), it does however, bring up some interesting points concerning the company and other streaming services like it such as Amazon.

Consider if you will, for your approval, the following excerpts:

“Five stars feels very yesterday now,” said Netflix VP of product Todd Yellin in a press briefing. He went on to suggest that star ratings hurt its business investments in catalogs of titles, noting that “bubbling up the stuff people actually want to watch is super important.”

“It{the new system} suggests that there’s no value in divisive material…By depriving viewers of the opportunity to broaden their range, Netflix denies an essential aspect of the maturation process for the critically engaged viewer”

The new rating system, which will be a thumbs up-thumbs down system reduces film selection on Netflix to the quality of a Facebook post or Twitter tweet and frankly, films regardless of overall quality, deserve better critical review than that- even from their audiences. Such an action is insulting to the viewer and belittles their intelligence to a four year old who doesn’t know any better. Netflix should treat their audiences as if they were their business partners (because they are) and let them decide for themselves what is good and bad and to what degree. Furthermore, to beat an already dead point into the ground, this rating system is especially insulting to the filmmakers, whose work has been reduced, for the sake of convenience to 50-50 chance.

“The thumbs up/down system has been a negative force in the critical landscape ever since Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert first applied it from the couch of their television show nearly 40 years ago…Over the years, however, this binary approach has encouraged reductive assessments that depressed the value of nuanced opinion. It’s that same impulse that has led to our current age of Rotten/Fresh polarities determining a movie’s fate with the ease of a flipped coin. By judging any culture through the limited range of binary possibilities, it’s always one step away from outright dismissal.”

This kind of behavior is not surprising from a company such as Netflix, or Amazon, or any of the streaming services. Through no fault of their own. These companies were brought up, as real competitors in the film industry, in an age when films began to mean less and less to the general audience. If it sounds cynical it’s because it is; if it sounds insulting, it is, but only because of its small nugget of truth at the time. It is not to say that film audiences today do not care about films, they most certainly do- but the companies, like Netflix and Amazon, seem to have temporarily forgotten that.

Hopefully, the rating system is just a fad that will eventually fade itself out; and if by some chance it doesn’t then it can only be hoped that audiences in April will be able to tell for themselves what makes a good film.

The New Paramount Decision: Michael De Luca

Variety this week reports that Michael De Luca, a producer at Universal, has turned down Paramount’s offer to be the studio’s 2nd after the new CEO, presumably Jim Ginaopulos. If one considers De Luca’s record, it makes sense as to why Paramount would want him on board:

“He is considered one of the most prolific and respected producers working with the studio, guiding key projects like the “Fifty Shades of Grey” films. Universal was particularly intent on keep De Luca in the fold because another key producer, Scott Stuber, is reportedly mulling an opportunity to run the feature film unit at Netflix”

Paramount, which has been consistently ranked last place among the major studios for the past five years, seeks to hire Ginapulous, in the hopes of revitalizing the company. Deadline reports:

“The development ratchets up the importance of finding a way to make things work with Gianopulos. He had a stellar track record at Fox, but his expertise isn’t as a creative executive as much as in areas like global distribution”

Ginaopulos’ experience in global distribution is not a bad thing for Paramount if he accepts the position for it allows the company to tap into the international market and gain international arbitrage through business deals (eventually, for Paramount, in its current state, is in no position to make such deals). Of course, if the opposite occurs Paramount will be back at square one and without Michael De Luca or Ginaopulos, they will be hard-pressed to find anyone capable of fixing and turning around the company’s hardships.

 

 

 

Scriptwriters and Social Media: Etiquette

Scriptnotes John August and Craig Mazin this week discuss whether or not screenwriters should use social media and how they should use it effectively. Craig makes the point that:

“On Twitter, people have to follow you. They have to choose to follow you.”

Craig goes on to give advice, tailored to writers, about how to use Twitter effectively. Some of his main points are:

  • Be clever
  • Be positively passionate
  • Promote sparingly and avoid “the walking billboard syndrome”. Craig notes that: “it is the worst way to use Twitter”
  • Don’t re-tweet other people’s promotions or praise.

Most of it comes down to online etiquette, basic rules of conduct that are normally used in every day life applied to the digital world; and this is worth mentioning for good reason. People, despite what others may think, do not respond to overt promotion, it is annoying and generally seen as a waste of time. This explains why so many people who talk to the industry  professionals tend to get shut out in given circumstances. The best way to get to know someone professionally, in some cases, is to know them personally. Does this work for everyone? Of course not. People are individuals and respond differently to content that is presented to them, so naturally the results, in theory, will be different each time.

Craig and John continue, talking about how to convey emotions through text.

Craig: “The things that I think tend to work well are honest expressions…If you are honest, and you are authentic, in the long run…you will be viewed positively. The worst of it is the lying. Humble bragging is not bad because it’s bragging, it’s bad because it’s false, because it’s manipulative”

“The counterpart to that is bravery complaining, it goes something like this: Some people clearly want me to believe that I’m not capable of telling this story but I am; I’m a writer. And I won’t be ignored….I don’t know anything other than this, that tweet was designed for people to say: we are behind you, you are amazing, don’t let anyone get you down…it helps no one but yourself.”

The issue that Craig presents is one that is all too common in the attitude of both the film industry and those currently studying film. So what does this ultimately mean for screenwriters who use technology? Be humble. Be clever. Talk to people as if they are people. If you do these things your online presence will improve and eventually start to grow.

 

 

Logan and the R-Rated Movie, What the Box Office Tells Us

The Hollywood Reporter issued the weekend box office report this morning with good news for Fox: Logan, the final installment of the “Wolverine” franchise and the last Hugh Jackman led X-Men film, grossing a grand total of $85.3 million at the weekend box office, with a global turnout of $237.8 million (an additional $152.5 million). Pamela McClintock notes:

“Overseas, Logan opened No. 1 in 80 markets and is the third-biggest debut for Fox International behind X-Men: Days of Future Past ($172 million) and Avatar ($164 million). After China, the next biggest market was the U.K. ($11.4 million), followed by South Korea ($8.2 million), Brazil ($8.17 million) and Russia ($7.1 million).”

Continuing what hopes to be a trend thanks to the success of last year’s Deadpool, Fox seems to be telling others that superhero movies do not have to restricted to the PG-13 demographic; that an R-rated film can be profitable if it is made under the right circumstances and has the right elements. The proof of this can be found by looking at the exact opposite spectrum in The Lego Batman Movie, which in its fourth week has a cumulative box office of $148.6 million, its weekend box office for the week giving it $11.7 million according to The Hollywood Reporter.

It should be noted that both Logan and The Lego Batman Movie are superhero films, which brings into question why they are so successful to begin with. Part of the answer, may lay in Deadline’s observation earlier this week:

“The studio {Fox} has truly changed the game on the gravitas of superhero movies by making the characters edgy and rooting them in reality. Some rival studios out there aren’t swallowing this well, because they can’t do this with their superhero properties; more precisely they can’t have their comic book feature adaptations rated R for the sake of their brand or the superheros themselves” (D’Alessandro, updated March 5th).

The superhero genre is a genre in which the fans have immense power and control through audience response; this is because the characters in the films are well-established and, especially in the case of the X-Men which focuses heavily on the outsider trope, easy to relate to. Because of this power that fans possess it makes sense to market to the strongest pool of fans, those who have grown up with the X-Men films (and in some cases comic books, and the 1980’s TV show, but more-so the early 2000 films) who predominately seem to watch R-rated movies if they watch movies at all.

In the coming months, we as an audience may see a shift in the R-rated movie, one that focuses less on gore, violence, and sex, and focuses on the character; or at the very least, presents a framework for the gore, violence and sex to exist instead of existing for the sake of a rating. When that day comes, it will be a day of change in Hollywood, one that may force studios to re-brand their concepts about what an R-rated actually is and if there is one thing to reflect that it is the box office numbers of Logan.